“Doubting” Thomas? (part 1)

Like everyone else, you’re a complex person, right?

You have your ups and downs, your good moments and…well, the not so good ones. There is a side of you that you want people to see, and the side you’d rather they didn’t.

So imagine with me that you’re having one of your less admirable moments (I know, just pick one). People see it, and forever after that incident becomes the story people tell about you, as if there was nothing else to be said about your character. It even becomes a nickname by which people brand you — like “Doubting” Thomas.

Hardly seems fair, does it?

Let’s see if we can’t rehabilitate Thomas’ reputation a bit.

Who was Thomas? He is most often remembered for the incident in John 20, when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples on Easter evening — but Thomas, unfortunately, is not with them. When they excitedly report that they have seen the Lord, Thomas gives his famous response: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (vs. 25, NRSV, the negative is emphatic in the Greek).

Admittedly, that’s a pretty stark statement. But is it fair to make that response all about a character flaw in Thomas?

The Bible doesn’t tell us much about him — in fact, his name might not even have been Thomas. John tells us that he was also known as “Didymus,” which is Greek for “twin.” But “Thomas” also seems be derived from the Aramaic word for “twin.” Either way, then, the man was probably known more by his nickname than his given name, like calling a southpaw “Lefty.” (Somehow, “Doubting Lefty” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.)

Matthew, Mark, and Luke only mention Thomas when listing the names of the disciples; other than that, they tell us nothing about him. John, at least, gives us a bit more. When Jesus insisted — over his disciples’ objections — on returning to Bethany to “wake up” Lazarus, Thomas was the only one whose response is recorded: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). One might have expected Peter to be the one to say this. But it was Thomas who made that loyal statement, shortsighted though it may have been. Not much in the way of doubt or skepticism there.

Later, Jesus told his stunned disciples that he had to leave them and go prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. He said, “You know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14:4). He didn’t mean, of course, that it was somewhere they could locate on a map; he was reminding them that he had told them repeatedly that once his mission was accomplished, he would return to his Father.

And again, it was Thomas who spoke up: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (vs. 5). It was, of course, too concretely literal of a response, which prompted an equally non-concrete answer from Jesus: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (vs. 6). But one could hardly fault Thomas for being less insightful than his comrades. If anything, he deserves credit for saying what the others were surely thinking; the words express not only confusion, but the yearning to not be separated from Jesus.

There is nothing in these two episodes, in other words, to suggest that Thomas was of a skeptical bent. If anything, they show an admirable boldness and loyalty.

But what about the incident in John 20?

We’ll take a closer look in the next two posts.